Nothing about the process of Kirk Earlywine’s hiring or his first month on the job was a comfort to the small knot of hardies who still care even a smidgen about Eastern Washington University basketball.
And in the three years since, nothing in the way we traditionally keep score has changed that.
The heartburn crested this weekend when, with a sweaty handhold on the one brittle branch that would allow them to extend their season, the Eagles embarrassed themselves against Weber State – by miles the best the Big Sky has to offer, but not to the point of it being the Dream Team vs. Angola. Eastern did bounce back to finish off fellow lead balloon Idaho State on Saturday, a game meaningful only as mouthwash.
So the reckoning: 21 losses, another seventh-place finish, a fourth straight year without a trip to the conference tournament, five seniors shuttled out the door. The only consolation is that the Eagles didn’t need the best player in school history to miss the playoffs, the hallmark of the last regime.
And one more thing: a coach at the end of his contract.
What say he be given another year?
If this is completely counterintuitive in the contemporary world of college basketball – in which Ivy League guys are getting the gas midseason – it is perfectly reasonable here.
Because, well, it’s Eastern.
We are, after all, talking about a program with 11 20-loss seasons in its Division I history. And the boat Earlywine came aboard was both leaky and rudderless, a function of both the previous staff’s ineffectiveness and administrative paralysis. The program was in the throes of a talent drain that went far deeper than just Rodney Stuckey leaping into the NBA – quality players were bailing and washing up on all sorts of other rosters. And by the time the bosses finally got around to changing coaches it was nearly July.
Ever seen the donut case of a supermarket bakery about midnight? That’s what the recruiting pool looks like in July.
Earlywine admits that he did himself no favors by releasing players who had signed with his predecessor, if they requested it.
“But I thought it was the right thing to do for those kids,” he said. “If it were my son, that’s what I’d want a new coach to do for him.”
In any case, he has been struggling with the numbers since, and he’s had but two legitimate recruiting classes. Even the No. 9 hitter in the lineup gets to see at least three pitches.
Earlywine likens it to a scaled-down version of the situation at Indiana, where Tom Crean was brought in to clean up Kelvin Sampson’s mess with few bodies on the roster and a late start. The Hoosiers endured their worst loss in the history of Assembly Hall against Wisconsin the other night and are boring in on another 20 losses.
But let’s not get carried away. This is, well, Eastern.
And really, what’s to be gained with another coaching change now?
Unless the replacement happened to be a former Eagles coach still employed hereabouts, there is no one the school could hire that would have any impact on fan or community support – and even then it’s doubtful. Eastern has had 27 years to build a worthy Division I base, and only when it flirted with or achieved the NCAA tournament has there been any response at all.
People have decided that they have to be given a reason to care. Having merely gone to school there is not reason enough.
Meanwhile, well hidden under the record, there are hints that Earlywine is making gains. Until the Weber debacle, the Eagles had played themselves back into playoff contention, including an impressive sweep of the Montana schools at home. His three waterbug freshman guards have been a handful for many teams – and maddeningly frantic at other times. It was sometimes curious how their leashes were considerably longer than those Earlywine had on his veterans, but he’s the guy responsible for getting to the destination so he gets to use his own map.
He has a tempting talent redshirting in 6-7 forward Tremayne Johnson and some frontcourt reinforcements who are sorely needed “to get to the free-throw line, to guard people, to rebound better,” Earlywine said.
“I know it sounds crazy – we have fewer conference wins than a year ago, yet I feel we’re closer to being able to compete in the top two or three in the league now than we were a year ago at this time.”
There seems to be little harm in allowing him another year to find out.
This is, after all, Eastern. Whatever the athletic aspirations, there has never been an urgency attached.